While the post of sheriff carries with it a great amount of responsibility and power, many voters still fail to give it the proper attention. A sheriff will run the county's jails and set its arrest policies, which in turn will influence state law enforcement policy.
Bernalillo County's current sheriff, Democrat Manuel Gonzales III, represents the most populated county in New Mexico, giving his office an especially weighty influence on state policies. He is up for reelection this year, challenged by retired Albuquerque police officer Lou Golson.
Both candidates have had long careers in law enforcement. Since 1989 Gonzales has served in all divisions, commands and shifts within the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department. According to his campaign website, he aggressively worked his way through the department and was unanimously appointed sheriff in 2009 by the Bernalillo County Commission following his predecessor's resignation. He failed to win the next year's election, but won when he ran again in 2014.
Republican Golson's career began in 1977 as a civilian with the US Air Force Security Police. In 1979 he went on active duty and was assigned to Kirtland AFB as a Law Enforcement Specialist. When he ended his tour of duty, he stayed in New Mexico and joined the Albuquerque Police Department. During a traffic stop in 2015, he was shot four times. After two surgeries and five months of recovery, he returned to work at the Albuquerque Police Academy. He continued to serve until 2016, when doctors told him he would be unable to return to active uniformed duty, and he resigned.
The two candidates met at a public forum in September to discuss their stances, but Gonzales refused to meet with Golson last month for an hour-long debate. Gonzales reportedly accused his opponent of stealing his platforms. “Whatever I say he tries to make his own,” he told reporters. He also said he didn't “see the benefit” in debating. Golson pointed out that his stances have been publicly posted on his campaign website since he announced his bid for sheriff earlier this year.
While both candidates do appear to share similar views on a number of issues facing the county—including the need to better coordinate with local, state and federal authorities, facilitate government transparency and increase community involvement in battling crime—one place where they differ significantly is their opinion of the use of body cams.
Golson says he wants to implement a rule requiring all deputies to wear a body camera while on duty. On his campaign website, he says the practice is the “national standard,” and calls for full police transparency. In an interview with the Albuquerque Journal, he said the use of both lapel cams and police cruiser dashboard cams would gather the “most and best information.”
Gonzales has been opposed to the idea of using body cams for some time. Last year he was criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Mexico Foundation of Open Government because he said body cam footage “gives a one-sided, lop-sided story” and could be used by the media to depict the department unfavorably. He would rather see the implementation of dash cams alone.
Golson has said that under Gonzales' watch, BCSO employees have been allowed to become reckless and need to be more closely scrutinized. He has voiced concerns over the current sheriff's use-of-force policy, saying it allows for deputies to use violence unnecessarily.
During Gonzales' term as sheriff, a new car chase policy was introduced that allowed deputies to chase a fleeing misdemeanor suspect if they appear to be driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or if they are endangering other drivers with “flagrantly reckless” driving. An earlier policy only allowed officers to pursue those suspected of a violent felony. The year the new policy was introduced, the number of police car chases in Bernalillo rose to 74, compared with only 11 pursuits the year before.
And nine deputy-involved shootings occurred within the last five months of 2017 under the current sheriff, leading the activist group APD and BCSO in Crisis to speak against his reelection last November. At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union again suggested the department use lapel cameras. Gonzales once more denounced their use.
Gonzales has blamed the rise in car chases and police shootings on a coinciding rise in crime rates and says that he is already “providing high level transparency and accountability.” He wants to increase police presence in the community instead of spending funds on the implementation of body cams. “The future of [body-worn camera technology] appears to be ambiguous and costly,” he told reporters.
Golson says he'll see the cameras are implemented immediately if he is elected. “It shows you’re not afraid to put anything out there—good, bad or indifferent,” he told reporters. But he says the cameras are only one example of how the department's policies are outdated and in need of an overhaul.
But Gonzales believes that his constituents are happy with his job so far. “The public knows exactly where I stand. I’ve been here three and a half years, and they come up to me every day in the public and support me,” he told reporters. “I have no doubts that I’ll be reelected. I feel very confident we’re doing an outstanding job.”